Enoch Powell observed that all political careers, unless abruptly cut short by early death, are doomed to end in failure. How right he was. When the dust had settled on the Irish Civil War, only one of the main leaders from the Troubles of 1916 – 1922 was left standing. Eamon de Valera would go on to be Taoiseach (Prime Minister) for twenty-one years and President for fourteen, yet is now dismissed as a doddering old backwoodsman who tried to keep Ireland in the Stone Age. Meanwhile Michael Collins, slain at the tender age of 31, is now portrayed as some manner of latter-day Jesus who would have led us into an era of peace, prosperity, religious tolerance and sexual liberation – if only he had lived. In British politics, Hugh Gaitskill (“a thousand years of [British] parliamentary democracy”) and John Smith are spoken of by Labour apparatchiks as the men who would have led Britain to the promised land of perfect democratic socialism, while Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher are respectively the recipients of much sotto voce gratitude that the old crank has finally croaked it / fervent wishes that the old bag would finally croak it. Truly the grass is always greener on the far side of the hill (or at the bottom of the hill past Stanley Park, mainly because they spread manure over the field every fortnight [read him his rights – the Bad Joke Police]).
Few men would appreciate this better than Gerard Houllier. Had the aortic dissection that struck him down in October 2001 proven to be fatal, the lamentations for our lost leader would still reverberate around Anfield to this day. As it is, he survived and was feted like royalty – or even someone worthwhile – on his return against Roma. Tediously documented in this column as the night from which all my happiness flows, it didn’t look like it would be any different for Gerard Houllier. The reception from the Kop was matched by a scorching performance on the pitch, one far superior in footballing terms to the doggedly-defend-a-dodgy-goal efforts against Chelsea last season (although the prize against the pride of Lahndahn was, in truth, slightly more weighty). The performance against Roma was one of potential European champions from a team sitting proudly at the top of the table. Viewed in that manner, it’s hard to credit that it all went wrong.
Yet go wrong it most spectacularly did. Spend a few hours on the message board and the contempt heaped on Foolier / Hoola Hoop is unending. Every problem that the club has is laid at his feet. The Academy isn’t producing because he was too busy buying crap from France. We’re broke because he spent all our money buying crap from France. He tore the Scouse heart out of the club to replace it with crap from you-know-where. Players, both past and present, seem to be queuing up to tell the world how he was beastly to them and how glad they are he’s gone.
It’s hard to defend him, and in some ways he isn’t worth defending. Any attempt to put his regime into context comes up against the immovable object of his sacking, the first time a Liverpool manager was definitively given his P45 since way back in 1959. Perhaps he wasn’t all that bad? He was that bad, otherwise he wouldn’t have been sacked. The treble season is unfairly denigrated by some, but while most will admit that it was great, they will reasonably argue that it shouldn’t excuse the decline that took place two and three seasons later. Even Rafa should not be immune from criticism and / or the sack should we find ourselves no better off in three seasons time – some seem to think three months is too long, but that’s another story. It’s a little trite to quote Enoch Powell as if that excuses the failure, because it shouldn’t disguise that he didn’t die, he did carry on and it did ultimately end in failure. To say otherwise is to become an Evertonian, selecting only those bits that support the argument and ignoring everything else.
Still, three things can be dredged up to keep Ged out of the Bastille. The first point in his favour – and it contradicts what went before, but it DID matter and it DID count – was the success we did enjoy under him. Success is not counted exclusively in league titles, and 2000/1 saw Liverpool achieve success that left most fans (not least that lot down the hill) sick with envy. It’s not been often in the last decade-and-a-half that we’ve been eagerly awaiting each and every game at the tail-end of the season, but that was true of that season. Game after game, Liverpool had to win and they invariably did, culminating in that giddy eight days when the FA Cup, Uefa Cup and Champions League qualification (our first appearance in nearly 20 years in that trophy that is the source of our greatest nights and our darkest hour) were secured. It was once put to Joseph Heller that he hadn’t written anything to rival Catch-22, to which he replied that neither has anyone else. It would be over-the-top to say the same of those triumphs of 2000/1, but there’s a grain of truth in it, and Houllier would be entitled to feel aggrieved that it is now being airbrushed in such a way that it looked like only a step in the journey rather than an entire journey in its own right.
Another criticism of Houllier is that he supposedly left the club in ruins, stuffed to the gills with players who cost too much and are on contracts so cushy that they’d drive Tom Cruise to such fits of jealousy that he’d be driven to taking anti-depressants. Meanwhile the Academy is bursting with young talent but he was behaving like a British ex-pat driving through Provence, picking up any old tat that looked chic simply because it was French while the locals sniggered at him behind his back. There’s no doubt he bought some dross in his time, but he also bought some diamonds. The fact that eight of the team that won us the European Cup were bought by him is often dismissed as irrelevant without any good reason being offered as to precisely why it is irrelevant. It was he who stood by Jamie Carragher when the Kop was routinely howling for his head, a point conveniently forgotten by those who now chant about wanting a team of Carraghers. As for the failures of the Academy, the criticism amounts to a whispering campaign that would make New Labour spin doctors blush. A recent contributor to the message board wittered on about how his son was excluded and ignored by Houllier. The idea that his son wasn’t up to it is, of course, preposterous, although seemingly not as preposterous as the notion that the Academy hasn’t produced the goods to put into the first team. Perhaps you think the manager should take responsibility for that failure, in which case you should demand the head of Rupert Murdoch every time your satellite dish goes on the blink or the paper person doesn’t turn up with your copy of The Times (I trust you don’t buy the Dirty Digger’s other national daily).
The third plank of the Houllier bashers is the criticism levelled at him by footballers. This is probably the most worthless element of the assault on Ged because there is no group on this planet more self-serving, egotistical and one-eyed than those involved in professional sport. It is fair to say that few people have been as assiduous in deflecting blame from themselves than one Gerard Houllier, but his lame attempts to blame injuries, referees and the auguries contained within the goat entrails were scornfully – and justly – brushed off by one and all. Yet the likes of Djimi Traore, another player who owes his place at Anfield almost entirely to Ged, has the cheek to claim that the French players felt left out under Houllier. How this squares with those who claim he destroyed the club’s Scouse core – see above re the Academy – is a mystery. Better to dismiss both as moaning minnies looking to justify their own failings.
More sinister is the unquestioning manner in which Robbie Fowler’s comments have been swallowed by the media. It was almost universally accepted at the time that Fowler clashed regularly with Phil Thompson, yet now we are expected to believe that Phil was okay all along but was corrupted by the miasma of garlic. Perish the thought that Houllier might be given any credit for making a public arse of himself when he honestly attempted to defend Fowler’s line sniffing antics against Everton. No, anything that would suggest that Houllier had the best interests of the player and the club at heart must be purged from history. And while one appreciates Robbie’s affection for the club and his belligerent belief in his own ability (a necessary trait for a top footballer), nothing he has done since has suggested that Ged was wrong to take £11 million from Leeds United’s creditors. Manchester City fans who lament his miss at the death against Middlesbrough last season will sigh that there is no one they would have rathered take that penalty. Really? Was this the same Fowler who imploded against Man United in the 1996 FA Cup final, despite being indulged by Roy Evans to the extent that the much more dangerous looking Stan Collymore was hauled off to try and liven things up? Or the same Fowler who missed two one-on-one chances late in the 2001 final that would have saved us all a few heartbeats? I don’t expect Robbie Fowler to factor these things into account when casting a cold eye over his own career, but for other people to forget these things represents a total commitment to utilise any weapon against Gerard Houllier while refusing him a fair shield with which to defend himself.
Now that we’ve come to the end of this rant, it strikes me as perhaps being a wee bit too bitter (sez he, as if he didn’t write it. I confidently expect to claim at some point in the future that I was misquoted or quoted out of context). Liverpool and Gerard Houllier was a marriage that, despite some great times, didn’t work out. I don’t want to be seen as denouncing those who criticise or quibble about what happened. But the desire is often expressed by those in the vicinity of a divorce that the parties behave with a bit of dignity and respect for each other. Ged has followed that up, walking away with his wishes for a happy future reverberating gently in our ears. Accusing him of things for which he cannot be blamed, using childish labels like “Foolier” and inflicting death by a thousand Chinese whispers does not seem to be the best way to reciprocate.